Mormons and sex: Before marriage, it’s an absolute no-no, but after exchanging vows, it’s an emphatic yes-yes — and not just for making babies

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

From over the wooden pulpit at many Mormon congregations and conferences, church leaders have spoken often about sex — and almost exclusively about chastity.

Having sex before marriage, they warn, is “a serious sin.” Wearing modest clothing is the “foundation stone” of abstinence. Members should control their thoughts and avoid pornography to maintain their “moral cleanliness.” Those single and dating should not participate in “passionate kissing” or lying on top of another person, with or without clothes.

“Please, never say: ‘Who does it hurt? Why not a little freedom? I can transgress now and repent later.’ Please don’t be so foolish and so cruel,” apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in an October 1998 talk on “personal purity.” “... You run the terrible risk of such spiritual, psychic damage that you may undermine both your longing for physical intimacy and your ability to give wholehearted devotion to a later, truer love.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Jeffrey R. Holland, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the afternoon session of the 184th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014.

His point has been repeated by bishops and stake presidents and apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for decades. Then-apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin noted in 1991 that “the Lord has never revoked the law of chastity,” and apostle David A. Bednar added in 2013 that not being celibate is “a misuse of our physical tabernacles.” In these recurring discussions about intimacy and temptation, though, rarely do Latter-day Saint leaders ever mention Mormon theology on sex after marriage.

By contrast, perhaps surprisingly so, the doctrine there is encouraging and even body-positive.

“It’s something that I think we’ve been really kind of quiet about,” said Chelom Leavitt, a professor in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. “But it’s really quite positive towards the whole sexual relationship of husband and wife. … It’s not just two bodies connecting with each other. It’s about this deeper purpose.”

Babies and bonding

The church’s handbook for its lay leaders states that sex in marriage can be about more than just having kids.

Married couples, it reads, should understand that “sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”

Leavitt uses the passage when teaching her two classes for newlyweds — maintaining marital relationships and healthy sexuality within marriage — at BYU, which is owned by the Utah-based faith. After growing up hearing mostly about chastity and in a culture that can be prudish, she said, some of her students don’t expect to see this policy or, if they know about it, aren’t sure how to approach it.

They’re timid and sometimes fearful that they might be going against the church’s teachings. But, Leavitt believes, “Understanding of our own doctrine should make us feel pretty open and positive about sex.”

The professor co-wrote the book Sexual Wholeness in Marriage: An LDS Perspective on Integrating Sexuality and Spirituality in Our Marriages," which is sold at Deseret Book, an official publishing arm of the church. It describes sex for married Mormon couples as a unifying, bonding, joyful experience that can strengthen relationships.

Its biggest point: Having and enjoying sex within a marriage isn’t against the faith’s theology. It’s perfectly aligned with it.

She points to the church’s view on Adam and Eve as an example. Many Christian religions teach that the Bible’s first couple were cursed for their “original sin”: Eve ate the forbidden fruit and then gave some to Adam. It was then that they learned that they were naked, and God made them leave the Garden of Eden as punishment for disobeying his command.

For some Catholics and Protestants, Eve is seen as the instigator. Because of her, the two became aware of their bodies. Sex, in those religions, then gets heavily tied up with sin and mortality.

| courtesy Library of Congress 1848 Currier & Ives print of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

Mormonism has a more sex-positive take.

“We don’t blame Eve,” Leavitt said. “In fact, we kind of revere Eve and feel like she made a great choice.”

By leaving the garden and embracing their bodies, the professor explained, Adam and Eve were able to move humanity forward and have children — something Mormons value. They could “multiply and replenish” as commanded by God. Leavitt reads that Genesis verse to mean both procreating and nourishing a relationship, just like the church’s handbook passage on sex in marriage.

“We don’t have the theology that discredits the body like some other Christian theologies,” added Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a Latter-day Saint and licensed therapist who specializes in working with Mormon couples on sexuality and relationship issues.

Finlayson-Fife said the church teaches that Adam and Eve — and their offspring — were made in the image of a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. Bodies then, she noted, are the way to “become most like God.”

Sex and desire directed in “ways that are good and worthy” are part of that for Latter-day Saints because they’re part of how God made humans, the Chicago therapist suggested. Denying physical intimacy would be denying God’s design.

“A body is necessary to our spiritual development, so you don’t reject it or work around it,” she said. “In our best interpretation, it doesn’t set us up in contradiction within our body. I think it’s a beautiful theology.”

When turning on is a turnoff

(Courtesy of Jennifer Finlayson-Fife) Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, an LDS psychotherapist in Chicago.

But even with an elevated, body-positive doctrine on sex after marriage, some Mormon couples find it hard to reconcile with what they’ve been taught before marriage.

“There was definitely a disconnect between the idea that you are not a sexual being, you don’t need to explore your body and sex is off limits to, in the snap of a finger, you’re supposed to understand how everything works,” said Kristen, a 36-year-old Latter-day Saint who asked that her last name not be used to discuss the sensitive topic.

When she got married at 24, Kristen and her husband tried to have sex on their wedding night and couldn’t. Kristen said they didn’t know what they were doing and what was OK.

Both grew up in the church and had been terrified about crossing the line before marriage. Kristen couldn’t help but think of every talk she’d heard from Latter-day Saint leaders on abstinence. It wasn’t until two months later that they were able to, as she put it, “go the distance."

“As a newlywed, I had so much insecurity about it,” Kristen added. “I think it was a huge wedge in my marriage and in my relationship.”

Finlayson-Fife works with couples who struggle to go from wholly abstaining from sex before marriage to immediately being expected to turn on the switch with a spouse — even if the faith condones it. Most, she said, have spent their whole lives connecting their chastity to their worthiness. And that message, repeated over the pulpit, can be hard to counteract.

“They’re contradictory models,” Finlayson-Fife said.

Braxton Dutson, a therapist at The Healing Group, a sexual health clinic in Utah that helps Mormon couples, said it’s like trying to learn the piano in one night after being told for 20 years that it’s a dangerous instrument. Nobody is going to be Beethoven that quickly.

“Don’t look at the piano. Don’t look at the notes,” he said. “But then when you turn a certain age, we want you to really start playing the piano and exploring this really wonderful instrument.”

In conservative Latter-day Saint culture, sex can be an especially taboo topic. Leavitt, the BYU professor, believes that because people — including church leaders — are uncomfortable talking about it, the message gets muddied.

The faith ends up stressing the consequences of not being chaste more than the benefits of abstaining from sex before marriage, she said. Some Latter-day Saint instructors have taught members that if they have premarital sex, they’ll be like a broken plate or a chewed piece of gum. Leavitt said they instead should talk about chastity as a way to create stronger relationships, avoid sexually transmitted diseases and promote safety in dating.

“It’s not just a list of noes,” she said. “It’s a list of safe boundaries.”

And, Leavitt noted, it should be taught hand in hand with the positive theology on sex after marriage.

What is ‘appropriate’?

Carrie Mercer didn’t know about that part of the church’s doctrine when she and her husband, Josh, went to The Healing Group for therapy in 2014.

At that point, after a decade of marriage and several attempts at counseling, they were on the verge of divorce. The Mormon couple couldn’t communicate about sex — what they were comfortable with and what they thought the church approved — so they stopped having it.

“There was a question in my mind as to what exactly was appropriate,” Carrie Mercer said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of naïveté when it comes to the true doctrine of the church.”

Josh called The Healing Group after hearing an advertisement for it on the radio. Carrie credits it with saving their marriage. Their therapist taught them how to talk about their intimate needs and what the church’s stance is on sex for married couples.

“You realize what a beautiful thing sex is,” Carrie Mercer said. “It’s not just to procreate. It’s a bonding experience.”

It also made her question: “Why doesn’t the church talk more about this?”

There aren’t many recent references to intimacy in marriage in the talks of church leaders. President Joseph F. Smith said in 1917 that sex between married couples could promote “the development of the higher faculties.” Even further back, in the 1850s, early apostle Parley P. Pratt called such an expression of love “the very main-springs of life and happiness.”

Church President Spencer W. Kimball is perhaps the most modern example of talking about the positive sexual relationship between husband and wife. But even then, in October 1975, he stressed that while it’s not just for procreation, “no provision was ever made by the Lord for indiscriminate sex” in a marriage.

The talks taper off from there and turn more toward an almost exclusive discussion of chastity starting in the 1980s and ’90s and stretching through today.

| Tribune file photo Spencer W. Kimball, right, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presides over a session of General Conference in October 1978 with his counselor Marion G. Romney.

Julie de Azevedo Hanks, owner of Wasatch Family Therapy, said part of it has to do with the culture in Utah, which can overpower the theology.

Some of her most devout clients have the most difficult time with sex in marriage, she said, because they never heard from Latter-day Saint leaders on the positive parts. They want to follow the church’s teachings and be faithful members. They want to listen to what they’re being told over the pulpit about chastity.

“The number of messages about women’s bodies, modesty, pornography, those outnumber the other messages,” Hanks said. “And I think that’s where we get confused and forget the beautiful parts.”